Hiking the (Active!) Villarrica Volcano in Pucon

Pucón is a small, touristy mountain town in Chile where you can book a variety of excursions and activities, from rafting to hot springs to national park visits. The most popular activity, however, is climbing to the summit of the Villarrica Volcano, which makes a beautiful backdrop for the town on clear days:

The Villarrica volcano is just one of the 2,000+ volcanos in Chile, and one of the only 500+ active ones. The last eruption was in 2015, when the volcano shot lava 3km high. It’s closely monitored for potential future eruptions, and there is a special volcano alert system in town:

Surprisingly, it’s still possible to climb to the top of the volcano, and you can do it in a day trip. You need special gear and a guide, though, which costs around 80,000 CLP no matter which agency you book with. There are probably around a hundred agencies to choose from, because every second shop seems to be a tour agency that offers the volcano tour. I chose one called Antu becuase it only had 5 star reviews, and more than 100 of them.

For all of the volcano tours, you have to be in Pucón the day before in order to get fitted for equipment. At 7:30 on the day before the climb, I went to the Antu office, met some fellow climbers, and got shuttled to the owner’s house a little outside Pucón, where all the gear was kept.

Volcano climbing gear
Volcano climbing gear

The hiking boots are the most important piece of gear, and I was worried that they might not have shoes small enough to fit me. But thankfully the owner had a 13 year old daughter who wore US size 4 shoes, so I lucked out. Although they would have found shoes that fit elsewhere regardless, since there was also a Brazilian man in the group with the opposite problem – they had to bring in special European size 48 shoes for him.

While we were there, the staff also showed us the gear that they provided and helped pack it for us:

  • 30ish Liter backpack to fit all the gear and any personal items we wanted to bring
  • “Diaper,” a piece of thick cloth that wrapped around your butt and thighs, to slide down on
  • Piece of plastic to slide down on
  • Thick water resistant pants
  • Windbreaker jacket
  • Buff
  • Bandana
  • Work gloves
  • Water resistant gloves
  • Crampons
  • Gas mask

In addition to the gear, they gave us a list of recommended items to bring:

  • Long sleeve shirt
  • Fleece
  • Sunglasses
  • Sunscreen
  • Leggings/hiking pants
  • At least 2L of water (I don’t drink much water, so I found this to be way too much and ended up carrying an entire liter of water up and back down again)
  • Lunch
  • Snacks
  • 10,000 CLP if we wanted to ride the lift

With that, they sent us back, with instructions to be ready for pick up at our accommodations at 6:30 the following morning.

Come 6:30am, we were taken back to the owner’s house to pack the backpacks with our personal items. When everyone was ready, we all piled into a big van that drove about 30 minutes to the base of the volcano. This was as far up as cars could get, so it was the starting point for all of the other tours as well.

Starting point for the hike up the Villarrica Volcano

We hiked the first 30 minutes or so on rocky gravel, until we arrived at the base of a chair lift. The lift is not always open, depending on weather conditions. But when it is, it costs 10,000 pesos ($16) and bypasses 400 vertical meters, or around 1 to 1.5 hours of hiking. It’s totally optional, but I’ve read accounts of people who decided not to take the lift and then had to increase their pace for the rest of the hike in order to make the summit. It seemed a worthy investment to me, and to the rest the group as well.

Riding the chairlift with our packs in the front

From the top of the chairlift onward, we hiked on snow. The guides instructed us to hike in single file, following the pre-made footsteps in the snow. They also told us to use the ice picks as shortened walking sticks, always on the uphill side. Just like this, we slowly zigzagged up in a single line, like a long caterpillar making acute angles.

Hiking up the volcano in single file

Along the way, we saw smoke rings rise from the volcano crater above. Our guide explained that only 10 volcanos in the world produce rings like this, as the conditions have to be just right. An auspicious day indeed!

The fading smoke ring

Halfway up, when we took a break on the ridge, I had a bit of a problem…what do you do if you need to pee? There were no facilities, of course, and I hadn’t expected any. But there wasn’t exactly anything to hide behind, either. I raised my issue with the guide, and he found the next best solution: we hiked about 50m away from the rest of the group, where I got a bit of privacy behind a small ridge.

And a side benefit, I also got a good photo op with nobody in the background:

The second half of the hike up was decidedly harder than the first. Maybe because we had used up a lot of energy, and maybe also because it got steeper and steeper. I was really glad at this point that I had taken the chairlift and saved valuable energy to use here instead.

The view made it worth it!

Right before going to the summit, we left our backpacks in a pile, taking only our cameras and the gas mask just in case.

Up at the top, we slowly approached the crater. Unlike the rest of the volcano, the crater has no snow on it, so you can see all of the rocks in a multitude of colors. This, we were warned, was the most dangerous part of the volcano. There are no guardrails, and some areas that might look solid could still be dangerous. So we followed our guide up in single file, taking great care to stand far away from the crater.

You have to get close enough to the crater, though, to see what truly makes this volcano unique: a big red hole at the center of the crater that blows smoke and occasionally lava!

Lava from the crater of the volcano

The best mini-eruption we saw:

Apparently it’s not always possible to see lava, and sometimes you can only stay at the crater for just long enough to snap a picture before you have to descend. We were lucky because we were able to stay at the summit for 15 minutes, see lava, and also make do without using our gas masks because the wind mostly blew in the other direction. There were times when we caught a whiff of the gas, though, and I can absolutely believe that the gas masks would be a necessity!

When we had all gotten our fill of the summit, we moved on to the other highly anticipated activity: sliding (formally, glissading) down the volcano. I think more than a few of us, myself included, were not so sure about this part. All along the way up we passed chutes that we guessed we would be using later, and they didn’t look the most comfortable or safe.

But it was time. We put on our gear, and the guides gave us a quick briefing on how to slide down. Bend your knees as you slide. Hold the ice pick on your side, so far back that it’s almost behind you. Stick the end of the pick into the snow behind your butt, and press down on it to slow down. Simple enough, I guess…

Geared up to slide down the volcano

My first slide was not super successful. I started off sliding just fine, but soon completely lost control. I mean flailing like a starfish and unable to control my speed out of control… but at least I still managed to hold onto my ice pick. They didn’t tell us what to do in this situation (flip around on your stomach and lean into the end of the ice pick, which I got from my dad later), since I guess they figured we couldn’t realistically be out of control for too long. Thankfully that turned out to be right, andthe hill soon flattened out a bit so I could recover my speed. Not the dignity, though, that was left somewhere up the mountain.

For the next few slides, I gradually figured things out. By the time I got a good grasp on it and started having lots of fun, though, the hill had majorly flattened out. Even using the plastic, which helped us slide better, at some points it was all I could do to keep moving forward by leaning back and rowing myself down on both sides.

Some tips for glissading that I wish I had figured out sooner:

  • Keep your knees together. For the first few slides, I found that I was accumulating basically all of the chute debris between my legs. There was a small avalanche of snow, piled up to a meter long, that I was pushing down the hill. This slowed me down quite a bit, until I could get some of the snow out of my way. How? By keeping your knees together, as the guides had originally instructed. This allows the snow to move to the sides, out of your way. Ah.
  • Leaning back makes you go faster. Counterintuitively, you’re more in control when you lean forward, whereas leaning back gives you less control. I learned this from skiing but apparently forgot it when it comes to glissading. Learned it again quite quickly though.
  • Bend your knees and keep your feet flat on the ground to go faster. Again, this reduces the friction and prevents snow accumulation.

Before we knew it, we were already almost at the bottom! At about halfway down the chairlift, we ran out of hill to glissade, so we had to make the rest of the trip by foot. It was another 1 hour or so before we reached the bottom. Around 5 hours up, and 2 hours back. Not bad at all.

We all piled into the van again and went back to the owner’s house to return and sort all the gear. He invited us up to the roof for a beer and some snacks, a great end to the excursion.

Post-climb celebration

Without a doubt, this trip up the Villarrica volcano has been one of the highlights of my trip thus far. I couldn’t have been luckier with the weather, the smoke ring, and the lava. Seems some of my good travel karma finally paid off!

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